With No Government Approval, Top Israeli Health Official Issues Order Banning Protests

The order, challenged by civil rights groups, modifies regulations approved by the cabinet, which set no limitations on the size of demonstrations

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A so-called 'black flag' protest following Benny Gantz's decision to join a Netanyahu-led unity government, Tel Aviv, March 29, 2020.
A so-called 'black flag' protest following Benny Gantz's decision to join a Netanyahu-led unity government, Tel Aviv, March 29, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov issued an order Wednesday that limits the size of demonstrations to a maximum of 10 people as part of the government’s effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. The order was not brought before the cabinet or the Knesset for approval, but the Health Ministry said the Justice Ministry had made the decision on the limits.

Wednesday’s Health Ministry public health order is a departure from regulations that the cabinet had approved and that did not limit the size of protests but only required that demonstrators maintain a distance of 2 meters (6.5 feet) from one another. Health Ministry public health orders do not require cabinet approval as they are considered a lower level of policy than government regulations, but in this case, the order in effect narrows the scope of regulations already approved by the cabinet.

Wednesday’s order states that “a protest may be held in groups of up to 10 people while maintaining a distance of at least two meters between them to the extent possible.”

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The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has approached Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri over the issue, seeking clarification over the limitations that the order placed on the right to protest without further consideration by the cabinet or the Knesset.

“The order issued by Bar Siman Tov purports to limit the freedom of protest, but the order cannot supersede the emergency regulations [approved by the cabinet], which explicitly provide the right to protest as one of the exceptions to the ban on leaving home and being present in a public location,” a lawyer for the civil rights organization, Avner Pinchuk, said. If the government wants to change its policy on protests, it needs to do so by amending its regulations, he added.

Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov.Credit: Yoav Dudkevitch

For his part, Haaretz legal commentator Mordechai Kremnitzer, who is a former vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said that any limitation on the right to demonstrate needs at least to be the subject of a cabinet resolution.

“The right to demonstrate is a basic right in a democracy,” he said. “Its importance is greater when the government is a caretaker government following the election of a new Knesset. It’s unreasonable that this right would be limited through an order issued by the Health Ministry’s director general. Furthermore, the limitation is far-reaching, unclear and beyond the scope of the director general’s authority and expertise.”

The Health Ministry issued a statement saying: “In the current period, any gathering of people, regardless of its purpose, is dangerous and might accelerate the spread of the epidemic. Therefore, almost all forms of assembly have been banned, including ones that had been permitted earlier, such as prayer. In light of the particular significance of protests, it remains one of the few forms of assembly still allowed, but under limitations designed to limit the potential for infection as much as possible.”

The ministry said the decision on the scope of demonstrations was made by the Justice Ministry.

The Justice Ministry had not responded for this article.

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